More than a year ago, writing with Jane Chong in May 2017, we laid out what we called, “Seven Theories of the Case: What Do We Really Know about L’Affaire Russe and What Could it All Mean?” The lengthy post was an attempt, as we described it at the time, to give:
an overview of the facts known today, and . . . then put forth seven different theories of the Russia Connection case that might account for those facts. We present these in ascending order of potential menace, from the most innocent to the most alarming. In doing so, we attempt to narrow the field of discussion—or at least provide a disciplined framework for assessing the possibilities—and give readers guidance as to what to watch for as investigations on both the legislative and executive sides move forward.
We wrote this post before the Comey firing, before the Trump Tower meeting became public, before Bob Mueller was appointed as special counsel, and before Mueller’s numerous prosecutions and dozens of news stories about his investigation and the underlying facts deepened the public record on the subject of L’Affaire Russe. Yet the piece, notwithstanding the blizzard of new information, has stood up rather well. The goal was to give something of a structured framework for thinking about the fact patterns at issue. And while the facts have certainly evolved, the framework remains useful.
To refresh your memory—or if you never read the original post—the seven theories of the case were the following:
- Theory of the Case #1: It’s All a Giant Set of Coincidences and Disconnected Events
- Theory of the Case #2: Trump Attracted Russophiles
- Theory of the Case #3: The Russian Operation Wasn’t Really About Trump at All
- Theory of the Case #4: Russian Intelligence Actively Penetrated the Trump Campaign—But Trump Didn’t Know
- Theory of the Case #5: Russian Intelligence Actively Penetrated the Trump Campaign—And Trump Knew or Should Have Known
- Theory of the Case #6: Kompromat
- Theory of the Case #7: The President of the United States is a Russian Agent
The other day, the folks at the FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast did an entire episode of the podcast in which they debated Trump-Russia collusion, using the “Seven Theories” post as their model. It’s an excellent discussion, structured as a debate in which Jody Avirgan, Clare Malone, Micah Cohen, and Nate Silver each stake out a position on the Seven Theories spectrum—they reduce the seven theories to four for simplicity’s sake—and argue for it. Avirgan took the most benign position, that “this is all just a bunch of coincidences, Russia didn’t directly help the Trump camp and there was nothing for them to collude on.” Malone argued that “Russian intelligence actively penetrated the Trump campaign, but Trump didn’t know.” Cohen took the view that “Trump knew” about ongoing Russian intelligence efforts. And Silver summed up his position with the succinct phrase: “Pee tape.”
We had been planning an update to the Seven Theories framework for a while, but the FiveThirtyEight discussion seems like an excellent catalyst. Which of these theories are still plausible readings of the facts? Which have subsequent disclosures and events rendered non-viable? Which seem more likely today than they did in May 2017?
Our purpose in this post is to narrow the Seven Theories framework and bring it up to date. Two of the theories, as we shall explain, seem plainly inconsistent with major fact patterns that have emerged in the 15 months since we wrote the original posts. Two others have gained substantial strength, in our view. And that said, the spectrum of possibility remains vast. Here’s our evaluation of each of the Seven Theories and the state of the spectrum they describe.
Let’s start by removing two theories from the table:
- Theory of the Case #1: It’s All a Giant Set of Coincidences and Disconnected Events and
- Theory of the Case #3: The Russian Operation Wasn’t Really About Trump at All
Theory #1 posited that
the only grand unifying element of L’Affaire Russe is that birds of a feather—in this case Trumpist Russophiles—tend to flock together. Maybe there’s nothing much more to the Russia Connection matter than that. Trump was enthusiastic about Putin and Russia, so maybe it’s no surprise that a group of people who have no problem with that, who share the enthusiasm, and who have done business with Russian interests get on board. Some of those people may have crossed legal or ethical lines, but that has little to do with Trump—and importantly, each element has nothing to do with each other element.
In this theory, which we viewed as unlikely even at the time we wrote the original piece, “the Trump-Russia relationship is ultimately no more than symbiotic: Russia and Trump had common interests and both pursued those interests, maintaining something of an unspoken non-aggression pact while they each pursued a common enemy.”
Theory #3, by contrast, posited that “the true explanation of the Trump-Russia connection is that the Russian operation wasn’t really about Trump at all—but was really about Hillary Clinton.” The Russians, like everyone else, believed that Clinton was going to win the 2016 election, the theory went. So the goal of the Russian operations with respect to the campaign “may well have been to injure her legitimacy and popularity as much as possible, weaken her domestic legitimacy, and retaliate against her perceived interference in Russian internal affairs when she, as Secretary of State, supported anti-Putin protesters. In this scenario, Russian support for Trump was largely ancillary to this effort to hurt Clinton.”
Neither of these theories survives the revelations of last summer or the facts alleged—and in some cases admitted—in the various Mueller prosecutions. For one thing, we have learned unambiguously that whatever was animating the figures associated with the Trump campaign, there was nothing coincidental about Russian approaches to Trump world. These were systematic and broad-based. Consider:
- In June 2016, Donald Trump, Jr., Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort met with a group of Russian visitors in Trump Tower, including attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya. In the now-infamous email exchange that preceded the meeting, Trump, Jr. wrote, “I love it, especially later in the summer” when informed that the meeting would provide him with documents that “would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.” Trump, Jr. and other representatives of the Trump campaign were reportedly disappointed when Veselnitskaya failed to provide the promised “dirt” on Clinton and discussed the issue of Russian adoptions under the Magnitsky Act instead.
- In March 2016, George Papadopoulos—who had just been named a foreign policy advisor for the Trump campaign—was approached by Joseph Mifsud, a professor with suspected links to Russian intelligence. According to the statement of offense filed by the special counsel’s office, Mifsud introduced Papadopoulos to a woman he identified as a relative of Vladimir Putin, and Papadopoulos went on to use his connection with Mifsud to try to organize a meeting between the Trump campaign and Russian officials, which he proposed multiple times to the campaign as a meeting between Trump and Vladimir Putin himself. In April 2016—more than a month before the contents of the DNC hack were made public—Mifsud informed Papadopoulos that “the Russians” had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails.”
- Carter Page was announced as a foreign policy advisor to the campaign alongside Papadopoulos. He stepped down from that position in September 2016, after news reports surfaced that U.S. intelligence was looking into whether he had opened a line of communication between the Trump campaign and Russian officials during a July 2016 trip to Moscow. Thanks to the controversy around FBI surveillance of Page ginned up by Republicans on the House intelligence committee—and the resulting release of the Bureau’s FISA applications against Page—it’s now clear both that Russian agents attempted to recruit Page in 2013, and that from October 2016 through June 2017, four separate judges on the FISA Court found there to be probable cause that Page was an agent of a foreign power (namely, Russia). The court made those determinations after Page departed the campaign, but it’s still striking that Trump identified as a foreign policy advisor a person who would soon become the subject of a counterintelligence investigation. And more importantly, a significant proportion of the activity that forms the basis for the warrant application involves Page’s activity during the campaign.
- While the presidential campaign was ongoing in the summer of 2016, Trump’s attorney Michael Cohen and his business partner Felix Sater pursued negotiations to build Trump Tower Moscow, as Buzzfeed’s Anthony Cormier and Jason Leopold have reported. The negotiations involved contacts between Sater and a former GRU official—though Sater later told the Senate intelligence committee that “there is no such thing as a former Russian spy.” Sater’s work ended only on July 26, 2016, after Trump had been formally nominated as the Republican candidate for the presidency, when Trump tweeted that he had “ZERO investments in Russia.”
- In August and September 2016, Trump campaign aide Roger Stone communicated by Twitter direct message with Guccifer 2.0, who was then posing as a lone Romanian hacker but who, as the special counsel’s office has now alleged, was in fact a GRU persona. At one point, Guccifer 2.0 wrote to Stone, “please tell me if i can help u anyhow . . . it would be a great pleasure to me.”
- Then there’s Maria Butina (sometimes spelled Mariia), the Russian national and firearms enthusiast arrested in July 2018 for her efforts to move American conservative politics in a pro-Russian direction. It’s not clear to what extent Butin’s “meddling” was connected to the efforts at outreach to the Trump campaign and Trump organization. But the government does describe her activity as taking place during the 2016 campaign and she did make efforts to connect with Trump himself after his inauguration. That said, Butina’s story is yet more evidence that the Russian government invested significant time and energy in efforts to influence American conservative politics in 2016 and going forwards.
In other words, while it remains possible that L’Affaire Russe involved principally recklessness and coincidence on the U.S. side of the relationship, it’s quite clear at this stage that it involved something decidedly not coincidental on the Russian side.
Moreover, it has also become unambiguously clear that the Russian efforts were not simply about hurting Clinton and destabilizing her prospective presidency. They were affirmatively about helping Trump too. The intelligence community has taken this view since its assessment in January 2017, when it wrote that, “Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him.”
But the public case for this position has become overwhelming over the last several months. For one thing, in the runup to the Trump Tower meeting, the intermediary arranging the meeting (music producer Rob Goldstone) wrote to Trump, Jr. that Veselnitskaya’s offer was “part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump." Moreover, allegations in the statement of offense in the Papadopoulos case and the indictments handed down over Russia’s social media influence operation and the hacking and leaking of the DNC and Podesta emails do not describe Russia’s intervention merely as an effort to damage Clinton but as an affirmative effort to help Trump. Russia systematically hacked the DNC, DCCC, and Clinton campaign and reached out to someone known to be connected with Trump and hinted about the existence of “dirt” on Clinton. Meanwhile, Mueller’s detailed chronicle of the social media posts seeded by Russian trolls shows that, “[f]rom at least April 2016 through November 2016,” the trolls began publishing posts “expressly advocating for the election of then-candidate Trump or expressly opposing Clinton.”
By contrast, Theory of the Case #2, which posits that the only notable action on the Trump campaign’s side was that the campaign affirmatively attracted Russophiles, remains viable. In this theory, “Trump’s Putinista tendencies—along with his many other eccentric and unappealing features—had made him so unacceptable to traditional foreign policy conservatives that the only people willing and eager to work for him were people of fringe views similar to his own, shady business ties, or both.” In this version of reality,
There was a Russian hacking operation, and there was a largely unconnected incentive for people with untoward Russian business connections to attach themselves to Trump. The latter incentive may have resulted in individuals doing unsavory or even illegal things or acting on behalf of Russian interests, but it did not involve any Russian infiltration of the Trump campaign as such, much less Russian corruption of Trump himself.
With the caveat that there was pretty clearly Russian attempts to infiltrate the Trump campaign, and a certain receptivity on the part of Trump campaign and Trump Organization figures to approaches from Moscow, this theory still can explain a lot. Remember that there is still no evidence that any Russian infiltration efforts saw success—at least not if success is defined by what we have colloquially come to call “collusion.” While there is evidence—most notably with respect to the Trump Tower meeting—of Trump campaign willingness to work with the Russians, there’s not a lot of evidence that any kind of deal was ever struck. So it’s still possible that L’Affaire Russe boils down to a systematic Russian effort to reach out to and help and engage with the Trump campaign combined with, on the U.S. side, a group of people who came together because of—among other things—a solicitude for Russia and, as a result, adopted a cheerful open door policy towards Russian agents who might come knocking. This was true at the top: Trump himself was praising Putin and calling on him to find Clinton’s emails. And it was true at a bunch of other levels too. But that doesn’t mean there was any kind of organized collusive arrangement.
But Theory #2 also asks us to overlook a number of things. Most importantly, it asks us to se aside the enthusiasm with which aspects of Trump world actively engaged with figures that seem preponderantly likely to have been cutouts for Russian intelligence—at a time the Russians were known to have hacked the DNC and the Clinton campaign.
This brings us to “Theory of the Case #4: Russian Intelligence Actively Penetrated the Trump Campaign—But Trump Didn’t Know.” There is, it is important to stress, a continuum between Theory #2 and this theory, and that continuum extends into “Theory of the Case #5: Russian Intelligence Actively Penetrated the Trump Campaign—And Trump Knew or Should Have Known.” If we accept that Russia clearly tried to penetrate the campaign, and if we accept that—at a minimum—there was receptivity on the part of Trump world figures to outreach from the Russians, the question of whether the U.S. side of the ledger was one of recruitment or exploitation or merely one of acting as passive beneficiary is really a question of degree. So, too, is the question of Trump’s personal knowledge of what was happening. It’s possible, of course, that Trump—even as he was publicly calling for the Russians to release Clinton’s emails—was completely ignorant of the engagements his campaign and family were having with Russian cutouts at precisely the same time. It’s also possible he had detailed knowledge of the Trump Tower meeting. But between those two poles are a lot of gradations. There are many ways to know without knowing, after all. And this is especially true in the case of Donald Trump, of whose state of mind one can never be quite sure.
The public case that Russians targeted the Trump campaign for penetration and influence, as we noted above, is now quite strong. The case that they did so successfully is less so. That said, even the attempt is not by any means trivial. What exactly they achieved with their outreach to Trump world remains entirely unclear.
One possibility is that they were attempting recruitment. The Carter Page FISA application shows that the Justice Department and FBI believed at a minimum that Page had been “the subject of targeted recruitment by the Russian government.” Papadopoulos appears to have had some kind of advance information about Russian access to Democratic emails. Manafort and Flynn both had significant financial relationships with Russian or pro-Russian Ukrainian interests. But the evidence that the Russians successfully recruited agents, at least beyond the government’s allegations about Page, remains quite thin.
Another possibility is that the Russians were attempting to get access and influence. And with the Trump Tower meeting, they did manage to get an audience with the top echelons of the campaign. What’s more, everyone seemed to be meeting with then-Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. And from this point of view, the Russians may well perceive the outreach as a success. The candidate, after all, did make numerous positive statements about Russian relations and Vladimir Putin himself—though how much of this has anything to do with these meetings is unclear. At a minimum, it is no small thing for the Russian state to have gotten a Republican nominee for president willing to reverse decades of Republican Russia-skepticism and commitment to NATO.
To the extent Russian engagement with the campaign aimed merely to assist a friendly figure achieve his own electoral ambitions, the engagement itself may have been collateral to what Russia decided on its own to do on Trump’s behalf.
The evidence that Trump knew about any of the goings on in his camp with respect to Russia also remains opaque. Trump has denied knowing anything about the Trump Tower meeting, but Michael Cohen has reportedly claimed that the candidate was aware of the meeting and approved it ahead of time. While Cohen is not exactly a reliable source, it is true that Donald Trump, Jr.’s phone records show that the candidate’s son was in contact with a blocked phone number in the midst of arranging the meeting—and Trump’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski has testified that Trump’s private residence at Trump Tower has a blocked line. What’s more, two days before the meeting, Trump promised a crowd that he would soon be giving a “major speech” on “all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons”—but after the meeting turned out to be a dud, the speech did not take place. And notably, the hacking indictment shows that the GRU made its first effort to break into Hillary Clinton’s personal email server and the email accounts of Clinton campaign staff on the same day—July 27, 2016—that Trump declared at a campaign stop, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing” from Clinton’s email account. This is far from dispositive, but it’s also quite a series of coincidences.
At a minimum, the evidence that Trump at least should have known about some of the engagement has significantly strengthened.
On the other hand, the hard evidence to support “Theory of the Case #6: Kompromat” has not materially changed in the last 15 months, though no evidence has emerged that undermines the theory either. No direct evidence has emerged that there exists a Russian kompromat file—let alone a pee tape—involving Trump, despite a huge amount of speculation on the subject. What has changed is that Trump’s behavior at the Helsinki summit suddenly moved the possibility of kompromat into the realm of respectable discourse. Democratic political leaders, who had previously shied away from the notion that the Kremlin might have something on the president, openly suggested it after Helsinki. Nancy Pelosi, for example, said that the Helsinki performance “proves that the Russians have something on the President, personally, financially or politically.” Added Chuck Schumer, “Millions of Americans will continue to wonder if the only possible explanation for this dangerous behavior is the possibility that President Putin holds damaging information over President Trump.”
Trump’s conduct in Helsinki is not evidence except in the loosest behavioral sense—the sense in which someone acting particularly nervous in an airport might attract the attention of security personnel. Then again, it’s a little hard to imagine what other forms of new evidence of kompromat might emerge even if the file were real. It’s not like the Russians are likely to blow their leverage by releasing it, after all. And Trump is hardly going to come forward and announce that the Russians have been blackmailing him—or that he’s been pulling punches with respect to Putin preemptively out of fear of what they might have or release. So if you imagine that Theory #6 were, in fact, the reality, you wouldn’t necessarily expect to see more than the President of the United States, say, behaving in a servile fashion toward the Russian dictator and not pushing core American interests in his presence even when the entire world is watching aghast.
This is also consistent with what we described in our original post as the “soft kompromat” scenario: that is, it’s possible that Trump himself doesn’t know whether the Kremlin has anything on him, but is treading carefully on the chance that it does. (New Yorker writer Adam Davidson recently laid out a version of this theory in great detail.) So the absence of any evidence of kompromat could, in this theory, also speak to the shadowy power of that theoretical kompromat in the first place.
Last but not least, there’s “Theory of the Case #7: The President of the United States is a Russian Agent.” As we wrote last year, “we consider this scenario highly unlikely. It simply strains credulity to imagine that a president would be in service of an adversary nation.” And while nothing has emerged that rules this theory out, no new evidence has appeared that makes it more likely, either.
One additional constellation of facts has emerged since we wrote “Seven Theories” that inflects this entire discussion: Trump’s bizarre behavior toward the investigation of L’Affaire Russe. This includes everything from the firing of Comey to the public belittling of Rod Rosenstein and Jeff Sessions and Chris Wray and Andrew McCabe to the threats to Mueller and the serial Twitter tantrums on the subject of the “WITCH HUNT.” Indeed, as we were writing this, the president launched into a tirade demanding that “Attorney General Jeff Sessions should stop this Rigged Witch Hunt right now.”
It is possible to look at this behavior, in general, as evidence that suggests that the underlying facts of L’Affaire Russe must be very bad—that is, that we must be at the more menacing end of the spectrum (perhaps Theory #6 or #7), not the more innocent end. Who, after all, triggers a major probe into obstruction of justice in order to impede an investigation that’s going nowhere anyway? On the other hand, it’s also possible to look at the obstruction investigation as simply a matter that Trump blundered into and to see his interactions with law enforcement more as a feature of his personality than his actual vulnerability from L’Affaire Russe. Perhaps Trump fired Comey in a fit of rage and insecurity over the legitimacy of his election, and then was unable to restrain himself from attempting to meddle with each subsequent development as Mueller developed his investigation into the initial firing of Comey—resulting in a cascade of obstruction attempts not necessarily connected to any underlying crime.
The bottom line is that the spectrum of possibility has narrowed but remains broad. It’s still very possible that the investigation will end with something short of “NO COLLUSION”—which is to say, something like “no collusion despite collusion efforts” or “no successful collusion by anyone all that close to the center of Trump world, but a bit of collusion around the edges.” But it’s also possible that when all is said and done, there are major shoes left to drop.